“…our notion of a human being shifts, broadens, changes … the distinction between secular and sacred becomes pointless.”
Contemporary Western Buddhism appears to be settling mostly on an atheistic secular approach. The mindfulness movement, and the modern reformed Buddhist movement of vipassana, both regard Buddhist practice as a therapeutic retraining of an individual’s psychology.
Modern Zen is down with that too. That kind of approach has been designated as “ordinary Zen” since the 7th century, and many practitioners begin by following it. It’s “ordinary” because it is undertaken in order to gain “ordinary” pragmatic benefits — greater concentration, better health, mental, physiological, emotional, interpersonal, and so on. In it, the world is still the world, the self is still the self. In other words, there is no enlightenment in it.
Where we part company with mindfulness is that for Zen, enlightenment is no less secular than “ordinary practice.” To awaken from the illusion of self/other, into the great existence in which all is one, all is empty, all is us, and all is not us because we are not, and the infinitely distant is intimately close, is not to depart from rationality and suddenly become religious. Rather, it is to discover deeper aspects, dimensions, sides to what it is to be human.
To ignore this side of practice is to ignore Buddhism’s greatest treasure, where Buddha, Dharma and Sangha meet, and where they find their source.
On the other hand, to merely rest in that marvel would be to miss the generative, healing power of practice — the drive of the whole universe to be of service, to do what we each can to play a positive part in the unfolding of this world, guided no longer by our own sense of being a separate self. Rather, like the Hermit of Lotus Peak, we set forth “with the staff of awakening across our shoulders, into the ten thousand peaks” of the world.
To acknowledge the world of enlightenment is not to leave the “secular” behind. The reality we awaken to is nothing but a basic fact of our humanity. Our practice is through and through humanist. Only those who haven’t tasted it could consider awakening non-secular or religious. Once we have tasted it, our notion of a human being shifts, broadens, changes, in such a way that the distinction between secular and sacred becomes pointless. Rather, in humility and gratitude, we step into a world of wonder, neither holy nor profane. And yet, a world also on fire, where we do what we can to help diminish the flames.
This has been a recurring issue in Buddhist history — that the core experience at the heart of the whole thing sometimes gets obscured, either by religious institutionalism and the needs of corporate life, or by teachers who presumably haven’t opened up in that way.
But in the west, where we are young in the Dharma and the Dharma is still very fresh to us, we can simply and gratefully continue our practice whatever it may be, to the best of our ability, and devote it to being of benefit and service to all beings.
Message from Henry is from our November 27, 2017 Newsletter.